BRIDGET AND BEN
Our beautiful son, Beowulf, was born into the birthing pool in our living room at 2.34pm on Wednesday 16th March 2016. This is the story of his birth.
Looking back, I think my baby started to ready for his journey into the world on the Friday, a week before he was due. I went to a birthing class on breastfeeding at a local children's centre, and was feeling a little concerned that my baby didn't seem to be moving quite as regularly or as boisterously as usual (I should've guessed with that much movement during my pregnancy that he would be such a non-stop wriggler on the outside!) On the midwife's recommendation, Ben and I went to King's to get the baby monitored, just to put my mind at rest. Of course, the minute I was strapped into the machine, Hovis (as the baby of unknown gender was called then) started up with the usual kicks and punches, and the heart rate was loud and strong.
Over the weekend, we went to visit my parents in Suffolk, and on the Sunday morning, lying in bed, I started to feel what I now know to have been very early contractions - what felt like mild period cramps in the lower belly. I also had to buy some sanitary towels, as I was a bit leaky.
The cramps continued irregularly throughout the day Sunday and into Monday, but they were barely noticeable at this stage. I baked some healthy(ish) carrot cupcakes, with the midwives in mind, and went for a walk round Brockwell Park. By the early evening, I was pretty convinced what I was feeling were contractions, so Ben decided to skip his capoeira class and cook my favourite meal of his - a big bowl of delicious, healthy veggie noodles. If this baby was on its way, I was going to need something nutritious to fuel me. By now, the contractions were quite obvious, getting more regular, and taking some concentration. As I recall we were watching a film, but I wasn't focusing on it very closely and couldn't tell you what it was.
Ben and I were both getting pretty excited at this point and so we started timing the contractions. They weren't yet hitting that 'call the midwife' frequency of three in 10 minutes, but they weren't far off. As much as I tried to suppress the thought, I couldn't help feeling little bursts of joy and anticipation that I was going to meet my baby soon, maybe even by tomorrow.
Through Monday evening, we both set about turning our living room into our bear cave. Ben moved the weights bench onto the balcony as I had a real problem with its spiky edges. In hindsight, I was probably also uncomfortable with the air of testosterone and masculinity I associated with it. Whilst I lit some candles and incense, put on my prepared 'calm and relaxation' playlist, and arranged the living room with yoga mats, props and blankets, Ben filled the birth pool.
I was very aware of timing the contractions because I was really keen to call the midwife and for the baby to be properly on the way. Patience is not my strong suit! But the atmosphere was calm and peaceful. The room smelt nice and the lighting was soft. I was working with each contraction, staying relaxed as I'd learnt in hypnobirthing, moving my body in whatever way felt good and breathing, breathing, breathing. My favourite movements at this stage were catlike stretches on all fours, wiggling on the Swiss ball, and hanging from the pull-up bar in the doorway. I was also enjoying resting between surges in a sort of child's pose over a yoga bolster on the floor. I'd read so much positive literature on birth, mainly the wonderful Ina May Gaskin, and taken in so much from the positive affirmations of the hypnobirthing that I was able to stay very relaxed, and focused on staying that way, with snippets of Ina May birth stories, and ones told to us by our hypnobirthing teacher, Phoebe, popping into my head.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, we decided the contractions were close enough together and called the midwife. After speaking to me on the phone, she was a little reluctant to come out to us, as she didn't think I sounded far enough along, but she agreed to come in an hour or so. Unfortunately the midwife on duty was the only one of a possible five with whom I hadn't felt a connection. When she arrived, the energy in the house altered and although she was perfectly pleasant, I felt a little less comfortable. She examined me, and in spite of my having asked not to be told how far my cervix was dilated, she came out with it: only one to two centimetres. After a whole night of no sleep, expecting a baby to be born imminently, I felt crushed. Only one to two centimetres! We'd barely got going.
The midwife left and said to call when we were further along. Then the sun came up, my contractions slowed and I started to feel miserable. It felt like we were going backwards. Most of Tuesday went by in a bit of a blur. I remember dancing on my own in the living room to Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James songs whilst Ben tried to catch some zzzs; there was a failed attempt to use the Tens machine; I sat in the bath for a bit. But it didn't feel like we were getting any closer to meeting our baby. This was the only point through the whole labour when I felt actual pain from the contractions: I was in my head, I wasn't focusing enough on my breath, and I was cross with my body for not working quickly enough. So adrenalin was eclipsing oxytocin and we'd hit a wall. At this point Ben suggested I try some pain killers, so I had my first of two lots of paracetamol.
Some time in the afternoon, Ben persuaded me that we should call Ingrid. She was my wonderful pregnancy yoga teacher with whom we'd done a birth preparation course only a week previously. It had been a brilliant, informative and practical day of learning, and Ben and I had both come away feeling closer as a couple, more confident about the impending birth, and totally in love with Ingrid! She said we could call anytime day or night if we needed advice, so we did. It's hard to know what impact each little thing had on the smoothness of the birth process, but I believe Ingrid's help at this point was instrumental in turning things around. She suggested some yoga exercises I could do to help the baby move a little in case it had got its angles slightly wrong, then she told us to try and get some sleep, even if it was only for a few moments between contractions. Ben conked out as soon as his head hit the pillow, and I managed to refocus my breathing so that I was working with rather than against the surges, and rested in between.
By the time the sun left the sky on Tuesday night, we were back in the game, the contractions were getting closer together and more intense, and we were feeling positive, if slightly exhausted. As the process intensified, I chose the bedroom as my safe space. With nicely dimmed lighting, and freed from the constrictions of any clothing, I started to get in touch with my animal side, using deep growls and groans with every new surge. God knows what the neighbours must've thought, but that wasn't really top of my list of priorities at the time! I got into a good rhythm, pushing against the wall with my hands, swaying my hips and making deep bear/cow noises with each contraction, and then lying on the bed to rest for a few seconds in between. And repeat. For a really long time. Somewhere in here, Ben called the midwife again (a different one on duty now, one with whom I felt a greater affinity), and from his description of what I was up to, she said she'd be round within the hour.
When the midwife arrived she wanted to examine me to see how far along we were. The thought of having to lie down through a contraction whilst she did it filled me with dread (I needed to be on my feet and moving) but she timed it well, and I survived. Having written in my birth plan I didn't want to know numbers, there was no way I wasn't knowing how dilated I was now, so when she said eight centimetres I was ecstatic. We were getting closer to meeting our little Hovis. I laboured for another couple of hours in the bedroom, and Ben emptied and refilled the birth pool. It was wonderful to know that I had the relief of the warm water to look forward to, and I wanted to get as far along as possible before I plunged in.
After a few really overwhelming surges, I decided it was time for the pool. And my god did that water feel good. Sinking into the warmth, feeling the water wrap all around me, everything suddenly felt a lot easier. I could lean over the edge of the pool and hold onto Ben when the contractions came, and then flop my head down and drift into something like sleep in between. The room looked and smelt beautiful, curtains closed, soft lighting, a mix of lavender and lemon oils on the burner. I have an incredibly sensitive sense of smell, heightened even further by pregnancy, so scent is very important to me, and even more so to primal, mid-labour me. So after Ben had eaten something with garlic and onions, I dispatched him to brush his teeth, much to the amusement of the midwives (we had two by now for the final stages.)
The midwives said it was find for me to wee in the birth pool, but I actually found the process of getting out, climbing the stairs and having a moment with a contraction or two in the bathroom to be worth the effort, and actually quite enjoyable. It felt comparable to leaving the dancefloor in a club and taking a moment to yourself in the toilet, only to realise quite how high you're feeling. That process of looking in the mirror and really seeing yourself, the rush coming over you as a change of scene spikes the effect of whatever drugs you've taken. A friend who'd been through labour only a few months before told me her experience was not unlike staying up all night at a music festival - the euphoric exhaustion, the lack of sleep, the minimal amount of food - and I totally get what she meant.
The midwives were amazing. Essentially it felt like they left Ben and me to our own devices, although I know they were actually working very hard to allow us to have that sense of ease. The one thing that I had a problem with was their monitoring of the baby's heart rate. Of course, I knew how critical this was, and the midwives were incredibly kind, but wow was it annoying, being prodded in the belly every few minutes when you're trying to have a goddamn contraction! But I feel very fortunate to have been able to labour at home in such comfort and with so little interference.
As we got into late Wednesday morning, the midwife told us we needed to hurry things along a bit. Her recommendation? She told Ben to kiss me passionately and play with my nipples. And sure enough, boom, oxytocin, everything sped up. The text books were right. Talking of text book, it was at this point that I had the moment of clarity, which hindsight can tell me was the adrenalin injection going into transition. I knew I couldn't do this. I couldn't go on anymore. I couldn't push this baby out. But for Ben this was the signal that we were nearly there (thanks again, Ingrid) so he upped his game even further with his support and encouragement. At this point the contractions intensified and moved downwards, creating the urge to push. I hung around Ben's neck, almost pulling him into the pool at one point, and summoned energy from the depths of mother earth to get the baby out. (Ben admitted to me later that he'd hurt his back as I hung on during one of my more vigorous contractions, but he soldiered on as he didn't want me to worry about him and hold back.)
Each contraction had drawn animal-like noises from inside me, but at this point, the midwife told me to ease up on the noise, and put all the effort into pushing. She said I was wasting energy on sound. This was a real challenge, as I'd become accustomed to imitating a cow/bear to release the tension. Just as I thought there was no more energy to draw on, the midwife got me to stand up, and the movement brought on an enormous surge. I splashed down into the water, pushing with everything I had and out came the head. With another push, and a very strange sensation, the rest of the body wriggled out and I looked down into the water to see our little dark haired cherub floating in the murk. It's a cliche, but nothing can compare to that feeling of seeing and holding your child for the first time. We were so overwhelmed with happiness, relief and exhaustion, that we didn't even think to check the gender until prompted by the midwives. According to our notes, we held Beowulf for a good 20 minutes before we knew he was a he.
Having negotiated my way out of the birth pool with wobbly legs, holding a baby attached by a cord through my vagina, I sat on the sofa to deliver the placenta. With one heel raised on a yoga block, the midwife looked around for something to lift the other foot. She picked up a hardback version of Mary Beard's SPQR which was the perfect size. (The midwife knows Mary, and told me she was rather pleased to know her book had been put to good use.) When the placenta was out, the midwife carefully cut off a couple of chunks for our smoothie (yes, we did) and put the rest in a box to be turned into pills (yes, that too).
The midwives examined me for damage - no tearing, just a slight graze (so maybe all that horrible perineal massage did work) - made sure we were happy with breastfeeding, filled in all the paperwork, and then left us as our new little family of three. It was so wonderful to be sitting in our own living room, our bear cave, and not have to leave. We'd created our perfect little space in which to deliver our perfect little boy into the world.
Throughout the whole 40-something hours, Ben remained calm, cheerful, supportive and encouraging. Ingrid had told him he needed to be my rock, my knight in shining armour, and my goodness did he fulfill that role to the maximum. He made me herbal tea, fed me pieces of fruit, prompted me to drink water (and go to the toilet), massaged my back and let me hang round his neck. I could not have hoped for a better birthing partner, and his unwavering strength and confidence in me made me love him in a whole new way. I fully believe that his tenacity allowed me to have the birth experience I dreamed of and planned for, the experience which so many naysayers wanted to have me think would never be possible.
I can't deny I felt a flash of vindication when I was able to tell people we'd had exactly the birth we'd hoped for. Here was proof that with the right planning and attitude, it was possible. And I'm not just talking pregnancy yoga, hypnobirthing and reading Ina May (although they all helped enormously). Ben rightly pointed out I'd done a lifetime of preparation which contributed to the smooth, painless, empowering nature of Beowulf's birth; almost 10 years of yoga practice gave me an awareness of the connection between mind, body and breath, and how to harness that connection to move in sync with the unfathomable energy surging through my body as the baby made its way into the world; and years of triathlon training and racing instilled in me the mental determination and the physical strength to keep going in the face of exhaustion, and the confidence to know you can always give just a little bit more to finish the race.